POSTCARDS FROM THE ASTRONAUTS’ LOUNGE, CONTINUED FROM P115.
a smaller turtle-shaped building about half a kilometre from the hangar and space lounge. Bleth leads us inside to the receptionist’s desk, but there’s no receptionist. A glass wall allows visitors to see the row of monitors where operations personnel work. But no one’s sitting at them. There’s only a sign taped to the door by the current tenant, a company that is leasing the space and preparing for a mission Bleth can’t tell us about: Acme Co. Notice: Authorised Personnel Only And then there’s an illustration of Wile E Coyote, looking all cocky. Most of the time, Bleth says, Spaceport is not in use. Companies other than Virgin sometimes lease the facilities to launch rockets or other things that go high into the sky. But a lot of the time, it’s like today: empty. This is a feature, not a bug, Bleth says. “Here, you get the best of both worlds. We are government-owned, private-enterpriseleased. Unlike NASA, we can bring in resources for each project,” he says. “We expand and contract as needed.” There’s one last stop on the tour. Bleth leads us through a door and into a garage with… fire trucks. These, at least, are not mock-ups. I think back to a video console I saw in the main building. It played a continuous loop of career opportunities at Spaceport: brush clearer, general maintenance technician, firefighter. (There were no listings for astronauts.) We all stand around, taking photos of the fire trucks. The only person who really seems impressed is a five-year-old boy. We get back on the bus for the trip home and an onboard video about the future of Spaceport. Bleth tells us that after the video’s over he’s going to give us “quiet time, to contemplate,” and that he’d like all of us to close our eyes and “imagine what Spaceport and the second space age means for you, your children and grandchildren.” He pauses. “And,” he adds, “just like Ham the space monkey got banana pellets for correctly performing his tasks, I have an incentive for you all: cheddarcheese crackers.” He holds up a wicker basket with generic Twisties and passes it around. I close my eyes. I hate Twisties. Driving back to my hotel across the empty landscape, it’s hard not to be depressed. I just spent two hours at the place that’s supposed to make us all pioneers in the second space age, and all I can think is that it’s a concoction worthy of North Korea. That if I leaned on a wall, I might discover that it’s only cardboard and my hand might crash through it. That everything there is either hollow or dangerous. And that ACME/ Wile E Coyote sign taped to the doors? The metaphor is irresistible: Maybe Richard Branson is Road Runner, and we are all Wile E Coyote, thinking we have just been delivered a beautiful gift, but instead we open the box and discover we are holding a bomb. Boom. Blink-blink. Space. It’s a funny thing.